WHAT comes to mind when you think of Kilmarnock?
If you’re a football fan, it might spark a warm glow of satisfaction prompted by the Staggies’ thumping 4-0 victory at Rugby Park last week.
It was a long trip and County's players repaid their fans' devotion amply with a ruthless display.
It was while contemplating the away fixtures that the idea of combining jaunts down the road with visits to the surrounding area came to mind.
A sort of extended away day, if you will, with an overnight stay thrown in whenever possible, offering the chance to get a bit of pre- and post-match sightseeing in before heading back up the road the next day.
A great way to get to know a little more about this wonderful country of ours.
And given that a young family of impressionable Ross County fans would be in tow, it was to be without recourse to pubs or any of the perhaps more obvious attractions for visiting supporters coming and going in a day.
Wikipedia will tell you that Kilmarnock’s the 15th most populated place in Scotland and the second largest town in Ayrshire (after Ayr).
Robert Burns’ first collection of work was published in Kilmarnock, Johnnie Walker whisky started life here (you’ll find collector item bottles in the local museum) and Biffy Clyro were formed in the town in primary school back in the 1990s.
The lack of an obvious town centre is one of the main drawbacks for the first-time visitor trying to get to grips with its one-way system and find a focal point for a visit.
In terms of the footballing experience, Rugby Park is pretty easy to find and looms over the residential area within which it is set, visible from a fair distance.
Parking close by is relatively hassle-free. Of course, if you book a seat on the supporters’ bus, you’ll be deposited right at the ground, which has its merits.
The rampant Staggies handed out a hiding to their hosts in such emphatic fashion that some away supporters were only taking their seats after Ross County’s second goal had been scored.
The good natured security guy was an object lesson in how it should be done, later prompting chants of: "The steward is a Staggie!" from appreciative fans.
The visiting fans were in tremendous voice. Home supporters, to be fair, didn’t have much to shout about, prompting the Staggies’ supporters offer: "Shall we sing a song for you?"
The famous and eagerly anticipated half-time Killie Pie was, on this occasion, a bit of a soggy-bottomed let down, truth be told. I’m no expert but am pretty sure neither Paul Hollywood nor Mary Berry would have been impressed. Like the home team, perhaps an off-day for the pie?
Given the result, away fans encountered on the way out seemed remarkably philosophical about the result, though a colourful YouTube rant by one disgruntled Killie fan suggested not everyone was taking it lying down...
"I think if we can just get in 11 new players before the transfer window closes, we’ll be fine," opined one old chap heading home with weary legs.
So, 10/10 for the football. Now what?
WHAT TO DO
Dean Castle and Country Park features prominently on any lazy internet search for things to do in Kilmarnock.
The fact that it’s both highly rated and free made it a no-brainer for our whistle-stop tour of the East Ayrshire town.
Finding it was another matter, the combination of a confused sat-nav and very poor signage resulting in a scenic tour of Kilmarnock’s somewhat frustrating one-way system.
On a beautiful day, though, it turned out to be well worth the effort. The car park was overflowing by the time we left though we arrived early enough to really enjoy the sprawling 200-acre grounds and coo over the herd of very tame deer and the well-fed rabbits and quizzical llamas in a segment of the grounds.
The reference to Lord Boyd in the interpretive panel outside the castle made me think of two footballers of that ilk: Kilmarnock striker Kris, witnessed 24 hours earlier drumming his fists in frustration against the Rugby Park turf after a failed shot at goal, and Staggies legend Scott.
Dedicated volunteers inside are on hand to answer questions and needlework fans will doubtless be impressed by some of the slick-fingered work on display. The weighty suits of armour from days gone by certainly convey a sense of history. It doesn’t take long to see around the section of the building open to the public but it’s well worth a gander all the same and is free of charge.
Strolling through the grounds before treating yourself to a cuppa and cake in the tearoom make for a very pleasant couple of hours.
Dean Castle, Dean Road, Kilmarnock, KA3 1XB.
T: 01563 554734
Funded by Kilmarnock-born James Dick, a local lad made good in Australia, you’d probably never guess from the name what the Dick Institute actually is.
It turns out to be an art gallery, museum and library rolled into one.
It was ravaged by fire just eight years after opening in 1901 but re-opened before being pressed into use as an auxiliary hospital during World War 1.
There are separate library sections for children and adults across a grand entrance hallway and a generously sized exhibition space which, when we visited, had an excellent display of war-time public information posters. You know the type: with messages ranging from "careless talk costs lives" to exhortations to make the most of our gardens, use the train and keep Britain tidy.
The museum has a fair few hands-on displays including an old-fashioned school blackboard and lift-top desks that will provide a shot of nostalgia/shiver of trepidation for some and a curio for anyone under the age of 40.
A lively hub with helpful staff — one displaying the patience of a saint with a cranky computer user when we visited — and interesting displays, the Dick Institute added to our cultural appreciation of the town.
Dick Institute, Elmbank Avenue, Kilmarnock, KA1 3BU
T: 01563 554300
While the somewhat scattered nature of the town makes it difficult for the newcomer to find a focus for a visit, there are a surprising number of public parks and open spaces with scope to keep children entertained for an hour or two. Kay Park offers easy parking, places to sit and a play area.
Lonely Planet’s Scotland guide manages to encapsulate Kilmarnock’s attractions in a single paragraph.
That’s a bit harsh once you scratch beneath the surface. It proved well worth the long trip for the football, the people encountered were friendly and there turned out to be easily enough to justify the extended away day.
The next scheduled away day is Wednesday, March 2, 2016 with a 7.45pm kick-off.
See you there?
WHERE TO STAY
Premier Inn Kilmarnock
FIRST impressions matter.
The cheerful chap on reception asked if we’d stayed at a Premier Inn before and, on being told ‘yes’, seemed rather chuffed and said: "Then welcome back!"
He endeared himself to us even more by pointing to a large basket of tea bag, coffee and milk refills on the counter in front of him and inviting us to be sure to help ourselves if stocks ran low. For a self-confessed tea jenny and coffee addict, that was good to hear.
There’s nothing like a brew — swiftly followed by another one — to make you feel like you have a home from home of sorts.
Now given that Kilmarnock doesn’t appear to actually have a centre — most spread out Scottish town ever? — it didn’t matter that much that the hotel was located somewhere on the edge.
Everything seems to be located somewhere on the edge. What did matter was that it ticked several really important boxes for the budget-conscious traveller:
Ample free parking right outside; a clean room and comfortable beds. Oh, and a really good no-nonsense shower that does exactly what a shower should do — immediately — without any faff.
Premier Inn breakfasts are great. Kids under 16 eat free with a paying adult and the self-serve buffet will set you up for whatever the day has in store.
The restaurant staff at the attached Brewers Fayre had already won us over at lunchtime when we popped in looking for a quick bite — and directions to Rugby Park, the home of Kilmarnock FC. Not content with pointing us in the right general direction, the waitress returned a few minutes later with a map printed from Google Maps and a rough estimate of how long it would take us to get there. These nice, unexpected little courtesies are often the difference between a fairly forgettable stay and the feeling that, yes, I’d definitely go back there.
Book ahead and you can snap up a room for as little as £29.
Premier Inn, Moorfield Roundabout, Annandale, Kilmarnock, KA1 2RS
T: 0871 527 8566